Last week, I shared some of the history of Nebraska’s Norfolk Regional Center (formerly the Norfolk State Hospital for the Insane or Norfolk Asylum) and the NRC’s New Cemetery, along with stories of patients that lived there.
I preface today’s post with an admission of guilt. I went into a condemned building slated for demolition, something I have never done before. I am a rule follower 99 percent of the time. But on this day, the rebel in me superseded my usual mild-mannered self.
That’s one reason I waited until after demolition to post these photos, because I did not want to encourage anyone else to act as I did. Looking back, Christi and I could have injured ourselves. There wasn’t a soul around that day so if we had, I don’t know how we would have gotten help if we couldn’t reach our phones. In other words, don’t be a bonehead like us. Stay out of abandoned buildings!
When we arrived at the NRC on a sunny Saturday in April, I had no idea what to expect. I had seen a photo essay about the place written by a talented photographer who had been there in January 2015. The remaining buildings slated for demolition that she photographed looked to be boarded up with a lot of “no trespassing signs” so I had little hope we’d see anything interesting. I was wrong.
Conditions were different for us. First, because it was a Saturday, not a single soul was in sight. Fencing had been taken down and the signs were gone. Doors and windows were boarded up in the first building we walked up to, but there was no fence around it any longer.
The front doors were padlocked so we made no attempt to go inside. Apparently, the building was occupied up until about six years ago as a “low-cost dorm.” Stories about the conditions in that building vary but some residents claimed to hear a lot of unexplained noises at different times, especially on the off-limits locked up third floor.
I also read that squatters lived in it after the building was officially closed (it flunked a plumbing inspection and mold had gotten bad). There may have been people still living inside when we were there but I can’t imagine it was a pleasant experience with no heat/AC or running water.
A series of underground tunnels once connected the NRC buildings for decades, but they were sealed up before demolition. The harsh Nebraska winters probably necessitated such passageways back then.
We walked toward the next building we saw and I realized the front entrance that had been boarded up in the pictures from January 2015 was wide open. No signs were present telling us to keep out. I believe it was last used primarily for employees, not patients. But I have no doubt some patients were seen there at some point.
As Christi and I walked up to the building, I abandoned my usual common sense and proceeded to clamber over the debris and went inside. Christi followed. There were sharp nails sticking up and all manner of hazards, but because the floor appeared to be concrete, I wasn’t worried about us stepping through a rotten wooden floor. Still, I can’t believe I did it.
We explored the ground floor first, careful to avoid nails. I was half afraid I’d step on one and get tetanus.
We wandered down toward the other end of the ground floor and I found the stairway down into the basement. I don’t like basements so I didn’t venture down there. If squatters were going to be in the building, I figured they might be down there.
Christi was still exploring downstairs when I looked up the staircase to the second floor. I went up and stood at the top of the landing.
But before I had moved more than a few feet, I heard what I can only describe as one of the most unearthly sounds I’ve ever heard. A chill shot straight down my spine. My first thought was that I had startled a squatter and she had wailed, because the noise sounded like a woman.
I do not put much stock in the paranormal or ghosts. But I am willing to concede that whatever I heard up there sounded NOT of this world. I turned around and hot footed it downstairs to Christi. I wanted out of there NOW. Having heard the same sound, she readily agreed and we went out the side door. The bright sunlight and fresh air instantly made me feel better.
If you want to see more and much better photos, visit my friend Trish’s page. She visited the NRC a few weeks later with a friend and was braver than we were, including going down into the basement. You will definitely want to read what happened when she went up to the second floor.
Across the way was the physical plant with its huge smokestack. Another utility building behind it was already partially demolished. These buildings all had asbestos warning signs so we didn’t go inside.
Behind these buildings, we saw what looked like barns. These were probably in use when the NRC had its own gardens to provide the patients’ food.
By this time, I was ready to see some cemeteries. We visited the New Cemetery first and then went in search of the old one. If you drive on the dirt trail behind the agricultural center, you will find yourself in the fields behind NRC. We parked and walked toward where we thought it was.
A word of warning. This past week I found pictures a man took of the Old Cemetery in 2011. His caption noted that anyone wanting to visit it needs to get permission to be escorted onto the property, which he had done. They took him by golf cart and let him go inside to look around, then took him back to his car. I got the sense this is private property from what he wrote. So if you do what we did, you may be asked to leave.
At the time of our visit, I did not know any of this. We found the cemetery among some trees and there were no signs saying to keep out. The gate was not locked but was secured by a twined wire that I easily unwound.
Only three markers are in the Old Cemetery but Find a Grave lists a total of 75 people buried there. Little is known about most of them.
The son of James and Sarah Grant Zink, Marion Earnest Zink was a native of Iowa. According to the 1900 Census, he was heading a household that contained himself, one of his brother, his sister, her husband and their daughter.
His Find a Grave memorial included an obituary in the March 10, 1910 Sherman County Times:
Word was received here yesterday of the death of Marion E. Zink, who died in the insane asylum. Mr. Zink, as will be remembered was found in a pitiful condition in Denver where it is supposed he was beaten and robbed and from which condition he suffered mental derangement, and he was sent to the hospital for the insane at Lincoln. He was about 35 years of age and lived near Austin prior to his being sent to Lincoln.
Of course, Zink had not been sent to Lincoln but Norfolk. But if the rest of this sad tale is true, I can’t imagine the pain his family probably felt.
A native of Polk County, Indiana, John Lewis was 21 in 1861 when he enlisted in the Union Army as a private in the 4th Iowa Infantry Regiment and was later promoted to corporal. He re-enlisted more than once. Company E saw action at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and the Battle of Atlanta. He mustered out July 24, 1865.
Census records from 1885 show him living in Clarinda, Iowa (home of another mental hospital). Lewis applied for an Invalid’s Pension on July 3, 1888, in Iowa. He died at the NRC on Nov. 29, 1911. Mary E. Lewis, his widow, applied for a widow’s pension on May 4, 1912, based on his service.
A native of Chatham, Canada, Calvin Carey was born in the 1840s and also served in Union Army during the Civil War. He enlisted as a Private in New York on March 10, 1863. After a few transfers, he started active service in Company G, 94th New York Infantry Regiment. Carey was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. He was discharged on March 5, 1865, with Distinguished Service noted on his record.
After the war, Carey married Sarah Ann Hadden, settling in Michigan. The couple had nine children and also lived in Iowa and Nebraska. He is listed in the 1889 Omaha city directory as a laborer. Their last child was born in 1892. Carey died at the NRC Only three years later on Feb. 19, 1895. The 1900 census records show his wife and three of his children living in Adams, Neb.
I am sure many of you are curious as to why there are so few markers for so many dead. I can’t answer that entirely except to say that such was the case at many mental hospitals across the country during this time. Patients were often poor and many had lost touch with family. There was usually nobody there to mourn them, to pay for a marker that would signify their life.
This week, I read a story about an adopted a 12-year-old boy in Fargo, N.D. who spent the summer mowing lawns to raise money to purchase a grave marker for his biological father, whom he had never met. The man was buried in Chicago with no marker.
This wise young man said something that resonated with me and could be applied to this situation. “I don’t think anybody should go unknown in life, even though their choices they made or anything.”